Our Memorial Day weekend in New York — great ballet, art, and ethnic food
by Rob Tiller
For Memorial Day weekend, we went up to New York City to see our sweet Jocelyn and get an infusion of arts and food. I’d bought tickets to both the NYC Ballet and the American Ballet Theatre, and wanted to see the new Whitney Museum. We designated Jocelyn as the food concierge, and she booked us into some fun ethnic restaurants. After going back and forth, I decided not to lug along my big DSLR kit, and instead took my compact Canon G16, with the results shown here.
The flight up went smoothly (storage room remaining in the overhead bin, on time departure, seatmate not apparently infectious). I read a piece in the last New Yorker on Marc Andreessen, the famous Silicon Valley tech entrepreneur and venture capitalist. It was a good primer on what VC is and does, and seemed like a fair portrait of Andreesen and his firm (Andreesen Horowitz). He is, of course, intelligent and richer than Croesus, but, it turns out, sort of inexpressive and unadventurous in his personal life. (His likes watching television.) And for all his successful bets on where technology is about to go, he seems in complete denial about the big economic changes technology is bringing, like rising inequality and unemployment. Cognitive dissonance, perhaps?
We stayed at the New York Palace on Madison and 50th. This hotel opened in 1981, when we lived in Manhattan, and was known as the Helmsley Palace, with ads that featured a then-famous dragon lady named Leona Helmsley touting its remarkable luxuriousness in a loathsome way. Now rebranded (thank goodness), it is quite a fine hotel, and from our room on the 32d floor we had good views of Manhattan towers and a sliver of the East River.
We had dinner in Curry Hill, the little Indian restaurant neighborhood at 28th and Lexington, at Chote Nawab. It’s a lively place, and the food was good, but our server was amazingly inattentive. Even so, we had fun catching up.
It was remarkably clear on Saturday morning and a bit chilly when we went down to the meat packing district to the new Whitney, which is situated on Gansevoort right where the High Line starts. It took a minute to absorb that the line to get in was a block long, and we kicked ourselves for not buying tickets in advance. But the line moved quickly, and we were inside in about 20 minutes. The place was crowded, but with a little patience we managed to get close to the pieces that interested us.
The current exhibition is called America is Hard to See, which is so true, and is a loosely chronological survey of some of the key examples of the Whitney’s permanent collection. It starts on the eighth floor (the top) with the beginning of the 20th century, and comes down and toward the present. The works were given a good amount of space, and where there were narrative labels, they were helpful.
At this point in my own art historical education, Abstract Expressionism from the 50s seems more like an old friend than a shocker. But I found myself moved and shaken by some of the political art of the 60s (some of the big issues of that time are still big issues). I also engaged with the minimalism and conceptualism from more recent decades. It struck me that this was art intended to be discussed, to expand out into a social dialog. It wasn’t about just looking — it was also about talking.
In addition to the fine display spaces, the new museum has large outdoor decks. We lucked out, with beautiful weather, and after each floor, we stepped out in the sun clear our heads and enjoy the wonderful cityscape views.
We’d thought of visiting some galleries in the area after the museum, but after two and a half hours at the Whitney I was more than sufficiently stimulated, and a bit wrung out. Jocelyn met us outside the museum, and we walked up to the Flatiron District, where we had good lunch at a Korean place called Barn Joo.
Then Jocelyn gave us a tour of her offices in the Flatiron Building. This iconic triangular building at 23d and Broadway, completed in 1902, was one of the first skyscrapers in New York. J’s employer, Macmillan Publishers, is now the sole tenant. The offices were nothing fancy, but still fun to see. It reminded me of our offices at The New Yorker in the late 70s. There was a great view of the Empire State Building from the northern point of the building.
We poked around in Eataly, a giant gourmet grocery and restaurants space, which was very crowded and fully of delicious smells. Jocelyn promoted the cookies at a bakery a few doors down as the best in New York, so we bought three and ordered coffee. The barista for some reason had trouble with our order, and took ten minutes to produce various beverages we had not ordered. We consumed them at a table near Madison Square Park. My cookie was a good mix of smooth and crunchy, and I enjoyed it very much.
We had dinner at Boulud Sud, a Mediterranean Restaurant at 64th St. near Lincoln Center. The place was bustling. There were no veggie options on the menu, but they proposed a gnocchi dish that was good.
We finished dinner with enough time (barely) to get to our seats at the Metropolitan Opera House to see the American Ballet Theatre perform Giselle. I was interested in Giselle in part for its historical significance as one of the oldest ballets still in the common repertoire. It was first performed in Paris in 1841, with Carlotta Grisi as Giselle and Lucien Petipa as Albrecht. It must have been astonishing at the time to see the women rise and hover en pointe.
This production had Stella Abrera as Giselle and Vladimir Shklyarov as Albrecht. Abrera was not previously known to me, but I will not forget her. She was sublime. Her gestures seemed somehow to be magnified and extended, with a remarkable emotional intensity, without being overstated. Shklyarov was also excellent. In the second act, the ethereal Wilis were spookily graceful, and when they tried to dance Albrecht to death, Shklyarov was so fervid that it seemed on the verge of real danger. The ovation was tremendous by New York standards, with the audience clapping for about 10 minutes. After I drafted this, I saw Alastair McCaulay’s review in the Times, which was a rave for Abrera.
On Sunday morning we took a taxi up to the Metropolitan Museum. I’d been looking forward to seeing an exhibit of the art of the plains Indians, but it had, unfortunately, closed. But there is always a lot to see at the Met. We started with a tiny exhibit of Van Gogh’s irises and roses, which had four paintings. The signs explained that the red pigment in the paintings had deteriorated and changed the colors of the paintings, and a video offered an interpretation of what they must have looked like. We spent time with the Lehman collection of Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, thirty or so great paintings that sum of the field amazingly well.
Then we made our way to the galleries with the Vermeers and Rembrandts. I listened to an interesting podcast the previous week with a debate on whether Rembrandt or Vermeer was the greater artist, and confirmed that I’m more of a Vermeer man. The Met has 5 of the 35 or so existing Vermeers, and I particularly love a couple of them. We also spent time looking at the pre-Colombian art, which is getting more and more interesting to me, and African art.
We met Jocelyn for lunch on the West side at Nanoosh, a Mediterranean spot, and I had some delicious falafel. Then Jocelyn came with me to Lincoln Center to see the New York City Ballet perform La Sylphide. This was, again, for me partly about ballet history, since La Sylphide is another path-breaking early work, from 1834 by August Bournonville. Lauren Lovette was the Sylph, and Anthony Huxley was James. The corps of Sylphs in Act II was, like the Wilis in Giselle, all in diaphanous white tulle, and entrancing. Lovette danced beautifully.
After the ballet we went down to the west Village, where we found an outside table and sipped wine, then had dinner at Pagani, an Italian restaurant. We liked our food, and the service was good until dessert time, when things suddenly came to a halt. The staff regrouped, though, and comped our tiramisu.
On Sunday morning we checked out and took a cab out to Jocelyn’s place in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. Her area seemed sort of Village-like, at least on a sunny Memorial Day holiday. We met up with our and J’s old friend Kathryn M, and ate at a South African restaurant called Madiba, which had a lot of funky charm, though it took a while to get a beer. I had the vegetable Durban curry, and liked it, and heard about Kathryn’s new admin job at Victoria’s Secret.
Then we went to the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens, where there were things that were blooming and things that were not. I didn’t see a great diversity of species, but the landscaping was pretty. We also took a stroll through some of Prospect Park. There were hundreds of Brooklynites picnicking, playing, and soaking in the sun.